Taylor Swift, progenitor of the celebrity #girlsquad movement, officially initiated Blake Lively into her benevolent blonde power circle this week. Swift announced their friendship in an Instagram post of the two jumping mid-air in what appears to be an amusement park.
“Yesterday was such an amazing day off,” she wrote in the caption. “Roller coasters, kangaroos and LOLs with @blakelively.”
The Internet rolled its eyes: Sure, Taylor Swift’s excessive earnestness and wrangling of celebrity sister-friends is charming, but is there no end to this parade of besties and #squadgoals and LOLs?
The eye-rollers are now rushing to Swift’s defense after Camille Paglia, the mordant cultural critic, hilariously skewered the pop star’s “obnoxious Nazi Barbie routine of wheeling out friends and celebrities as performance props” in a larger essay criticizing the girl squad craze. (“‘Squad’ as a pop term…once had a hard, combative street edge, but today it’s gone girly and a bit bourgeois,” Paglia wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.)
Paglia argued that Swift and other women in the entertainment business who are “at the mercy of swarming, intrusive paparazzi culture” could benefit from feminist solidarity, though they won’t find it in “the narrow gender factionalism that thrives on grievance.” She cited a pap shot of Swift in 2013, post break-up with Harry Styles, as a “dramatic example of their vulnerability.
She went on: “Given the professional stakes, girl squads must not slide into a cozy, cliquish retreat from romantic fiascoes or communication problems with men, whom feminist rhetoric too often rashly stereotypes as oafish pigs…In our wide-open modern era of independent careers, girl squads can help women advance if they avoid presenting a silly regressive public image—as in the tittering, tongues-out mugging of Swift’s bear-hugging posse.”
The “Nazi Barbie routine” barb aimed at Swift may seem harsh, but Paglia’s shrewd critique is entirely valid. For all of Swift’s talk about girl power, there’s very little feminist substance to the #girlsquad movement on social media.
Rather, it’s cutesie, hashtag activism. Whether Swift develops a lasting, meaningful friendship with Lively—as she’s seemingly done with Karlie Kloss, Lena Dunham, Gwyneth Paltrow, and many others—the image of sisterhood she’s projecting is more popular girl with her posse than genuine female solidarity.
Paglia has previously criticized other pop stars’ use of props, like the “cutesy toys” in Miley Cyrus’s infamous VMA performance several years ago: “Intended to satirize her Disney past, it signaled instead the childishness of Cyrus’ notion of sexuality, which has become simply a cartoonish gimmick to disguise a lack of professional focus.”
In retrospect, Paglia was right about Cyrus’s “lack of professional focus.” She’s grown up slightly since then, but sex continues to be the focus of her public image, along with her personal identity. She’s come out in support of feminist causes like “Free the Nipple,” but she hasn’t come out with a new album in two years.
Paglia’s latest essay is pretty straightforward: There’s nothing wrong with girl squads, but they’re easy to make fun of. If Swift and others want to be taken seriously as feminists and artists, they might want to start by rethinking their #squadgoals.